Archive for the ‘personal’ Category

14 Billion Cupcakes, Or: Why You Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life

April 28, 2012

So here’s an alternative two-step method for understanding the universe.

Step 1: Remember: Six thousand years ago, God created the Heavens and the Earth.
Step 2: Repeat as necessary.

Isn’t that a whole lot easier than analyzing electromagnetic background for evidence of some “Big Bang” fourteen billion years ago? Fourteen billion is a pretty big number, and God didn’t create us so we could waste time trying to picture fourteen billion cupcakes. (DON’T TRY THIS!)

One, Two, aaargh!

-Stephen Colbert, I Am America (And So Can You!)

You have a stronger mind than Stephen Colbert. If I ask you to picture 14 billion cupcakes, you’ll say, “No problem. Doing it right now.” Little do you realize that the ability to deal with 14 billion cupcakes is the heart of not knowing what to do with life.

So you claim to be picturing 14 billion cupcakes? That’s not what you’re really doing. Instead, you are (perhaps) imagining two cupcakes for every person on Earth. So I ask you to picture every person on Earth. “Okay,” you say, “sure.”

But you’re not. You’re picturing a map of the world, or maybe you see a crowd of faces with different ethnicities. The details vary, but in general your mind constructs a much simpler, more concrete idea that takes the place of “every person on Earth” – you create an icon.

For me, the interesting thing is that I know I can’t picture a billion cupcakes but it still feels as if I can. Our minds can build very high-level abstractions, and we’re so good at it that the process is transparent. That’s where the problem comes in.

What do I want to do with my life?

It takes me only a second to read this question and ten or a hundred seconds to ponder it before my mind wanders. Perhaps I can go a thousand seconds if I’m particularly melancholy or my pet chinchilla just died. But the expanse of time I am considering is a few billion seconds. I cannot imagine them all. The icon I construct for “the rest of my life” inevitably becomes distorted: idealized, homogenized, and definitized beyond reason, and this happens without my conscious recognition.

This isn’t just my personal affliction. The people we overestimate most are our future selves. In 2006, Netflix offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who could improve their algorithm for predicting users’ film ratings. Their goal was to make better recommendations for what to watch next. The prize was won in 2009, but it turns out the Netflix didn’t use the improved algorithm.

Over the years the contest ran, Netflix’s business model shifted. In 2006, users were mostly getting new movies by mail, meaning they were placing orders for movies they wanted to watch several days from now. Why, me? I’m a connoisseur! A few days from now, I will be very interested in watching an intellectually- challenging cinematic landmark.

By 2009, Netflix users had shifted most of their watching to streaming over the internet. Suddenly, well, it’s certainly true that I’m a connoisseur, but I didn’t get too much done at work and I feel bad about not calling my mom enough. It’s a bit too late to turn a new leaf today, so I guess I’ll see what Steve Carell is up to in his latest movie, but tomorrow it’s Ingmar Bergman all the way. The difference was so striking that the algorithm based on the 2006 challenge was out of date by 2009.

And this goes on. Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes tomorrow, Rush Hour 3 tonight. Vegetables and whole grains tomorrow, pizza and beer tonight. Ulysses tomorrow,Grand Theft Auto tonight. See the world in a grain of sand tomorrow, masturbate to fetish porn and fall asleep with your shoes on tonight.

When I’m thinking about the future, I occasionally write a To-Do list. It will start off with a mix of errands and the important stuff: go to seminar, visit to the bank, read the latest chapter, grade these assignments, get some exercise, check out this paper, etc. But when my list is long enough to fill up the day, I always have a few extra things in mind, so I write those down too. That brings more stuff to mind, and before long my list has items like “learn quantum field theory” and “overthrow the evil empire”. Even though the time scale would be the same, somehow my list never has “buy groceries two thousand times.” My future apparently consists of nothing but pure ideals and great achievements. Every mundane detail is excised, leaving only deep, meaningful stuff. It’s like I expect to start living in an Ayn Rand novel.

So any time I have tried to think about the future, I’ve never been close. Worse, I don’t realize how delusional I am. I can’t see the tricks my mind is playing on me. I become obsessed with the wonderful, abstract existence I’m about to create for myself.

How many times have you thought, “once I find a new job, everything will get better?” And if not that, we fantasize the turning point will be moving to a new place, graduating, falling in love, breaking an addiction, finishing a project, having a successful IPO, etc. Once I get over this hump, it will all get better.

That’s not true. “Happily ever after” isn’t how it works. I don’t mean we can’t be happy. I mean it’s an insufficient description of “ever after”. Our brains can’t hold an entire, rich future in view at once, so we compress it down to something like “let’s grow old together”. That’s a bad icon, but brains basically work like a man stumbling around a dark garage and grabbing things off the shelf at random. It’s the first available solution, not the best one, that gets thrown at the problem. The result? Three months after the Disney movie ends, the princess is homesick and Prince Charming is eyeing the chambermaid. The grass is always greener…

At long last, we find what we sought, only to realize it is not quite how we imagined.

Cruelly, the more optimistic you are, the harder you’re hit by this. Don’t trust your retirement portfolio to a happy person.

We tend to handle the big questions with small answers: aphorisms, epitaphs, haiku, koans, parables, quotations. The briefer the wiser. This seems backwards of how it ought to be. Beware of any medium in which the message seems to say more the shorter it is. It’s a sign you’re not getting advice so much as having your far-view blindness hacked by a platitude. It’s the journey, not the destination, man.

You can’t act on a wise saying, but I don’t have any more-specific advice for you either. Once I start claiming that such-and-such thing will solve this problem, it’s a lot easier for me to be wrong. The best you can hope for in this business is to get people to pay thousands of dollars before you tell them what to do. That way they’ll be sure to convince themselves it worked; it’s the only way they can keep from having wasted their money.

Even writing this essay has not released me from my poor grip on the future. Somehow, I still have that same feeling. Once I find what to do with my life, it will all get better. But I wouldn’t bet 14 billion cupcakes on it.

Further Reading:
Cobbled together from stuff in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, and Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias.

My apologies to anyone reading this the night before their wedding.

taken from my answer on Quora:

Late Night Thoughts on Reading Scientology

February 8, 2011

I stayed up late last night, waiting with increasing agitation to reach the end of a 25,000-word New Yorker article profiling Paul Haggis, a Hollywood writer who recently quit Scientology. I am a little unsure why I read the whole thing. I have no particular interest in Scientology or in Hollywood screenwriters. I don’t even have any special interest in reading articles on the internet. What pushed me on, I think, is a strange desire to have, know, and do everything, no matter the relevance to my life.

Maybe I could get into this, I thought, this thing about being incensed at Scientology. The article I read was in-depth, extensively researched, and well-written. It was good at engendering disgust. But to get truly angry at Scientology, to get some of the sunken, righteous kind of anger you feel towards the guy who cheated on the test you studied three weeks for or the treacherous villain in a great Disney movie, I would need a deeper knowledge.

I would find other articles and exposés, carefully balancing the various viewpoints, giving them due credence, analyzing their claims and evaluating their trustworthiness. I would pore over secret documents on Wikileaks, videos of Tom Cruise on YouTube, reports of Anonymous rallies, maybe even read through L. Ron Hubbard’s books with pen in hand, fighting for rationality and truth with every ball-pointed margin note.

Then I would synthesize, carefully organizing and analyzing my broad knowledge into a coherent picture. As I delved deeper and deeper, I’d learn what information I was still missing and go after it purposefully, researching, interviewing and investigating with renewed focus until I could present, clearly and definitively, the truth.

The task would take years. Once I started on it, I brooded as I kicked my feet up on my desk, I’d probably remain interested for a couple of hours.

The problem is that Scientology is distinctly uninteresting. I already have a high confidence about what a thorough investigation would reveal. Despite my feeble background knowledge, aside from some anecdotes and historical items that I will soon forget, I learned very little from the New Yorker article – it merely gave a slight and wholly unnecessary reaffirmation to the opinion I already held. This lack of uncertainty would morph the process of investigation from one of discovery and mystery-seeking to one of dutiful, bland documentation.

Scientology has no personal significance for me since I do not know any Scientologists and the ones I don’t know leave me alone. Their human rights violations may be abhorrent, but they are a fringe group that already has far more enemies than their stature merits. I would make little difference.

Putting aside a holy war, the knowledge of Scientology I need for my own purposes is quite limited. I do not need enough knowledge to have a debate about it; it seems unlikely that more than one or two people will ever try to engage me in such a debate. All I need to know is enough to decide whether it’s worth looking into further. That doesn’t require complete certainty about Scientology’s quackery. The level of doubt acquired by reading on Wikipedia that Scientologists believe “people are immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature” is enough. It isn’t hard to decide, with high enough probability not to be worried about making the wrong choice, that Scientology is not worth my time.

Why then did I spend three hours reading the New Yorker article? It had merit on its own, of course. I felt respect for the thousands of hours of research, interviewing, and fact-checking that went into the article’s creation, and I appreciated the clever organization in which the article becomes more and more personal and more and more damning as we reach the very end, when the reader is already deeply invested, probably a little tired, and more willing to be told what conclusion to draw. Though these aspects interested me, I do not think they are what kept me engaged. I also don’t think I kept reading due to the sunken cost fallacy of completing the second half so as not to waste the effort spent on the first.

I kept reading not for the article itself, but because, as many things do for me, it came to represent the abstraction of “something I can absorb”. I am knowledge, the article cried to me. And however arcane or irrelevant, I have somehow associated all knowledge and skills with an entirely undue value.

Why does my bedroom contain 343 books? (I counted just now.) Some of them I know and love, but many are on topics I have only mild interest in, contain only mediocre writing, and will probably never be read beyond the introduction – and this after throwing out half my collection once a year or so when I move.

Why does my hard drive contain thousands more books as PDFs, and my Kindle several hundred? Why do I have a hundred news feeds inundating me with thousands of blog posts, videos, and news stories a week, when only ten or so feeds really excite me? Why have I bookmarked hundreds of essays online in my “interesting, but I’ll get to this later” folder?

Why do I have ten or fifteen different hobbies I occasionally fantasize about pursuing, when one or two would be plenty to provide a social outlet and fill my idle hours? Why do I have a list of more than a hundred projects that would be “good to do some day”, none of which I’ve completed?

It’s a cliche to say that this modern world is overwhelming us with noisy information. I am not concerned with having too much information available. I’m in control of what I consume. How can it be a detriment to have almost all of humanity’s knowledge at my fingertips? The problem is not one of too large a menu, but of too untamed an appetite.